Blue Jays FAQ: Would a stint in triple-A help Devon Travis?

Russell Martin hit a go-ahead single during a three-run rally in the eighth inning and the Toronto Blue Jays posted back-to-back wins for the first time this season by beating the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1.

In this regular feature, Toronto Blue Jays radio broadcaster Mike Wilner addresses key questions pertaining to the team.

Q – Now that the Blue Jays have pulled the plug on Jarrod Saltalamacchia, is Steve Pearce next?

A – With the Blue Jays off to one of the worst starts in club history, this past weekend’s move to cut Saltalamacchia loose was seen by many as the first of a potential host of moves that could clear out some of the underperforming Blue Jays.

There are vast difference between Saltalamacchia and Pearce, though.

Saltalamacchia was a bat-first back-up catcher who wasn’t hitting at all and who teams were beginning to take serious advantage of on the basepaths. On a one-year contract, trying to bounce back after a rough season with Detroit that saw him hit .171/.284/.346, one can see why there was a quick trigger with the switch-hitter.

In his ten games with the Blue Jays, Saltalamacchia only reached base twice in 26 plate appearances, with one single and one walk. He struck out 16 times – including a streak over which he established a franchise record by striking out in 10 straight plate appearances – so he actually put the ball in play less than a third of the time.

A bigger issue was his inability to even remotely control the running game. Nine runners tried to steal bases off Saltalamacchia and they were all successful. Now, some of that is on the pitcher, of course, but of the nine throws Salty made to try to nab a runner, eight of them didn’t even make it to the base to which he was throwing without bouncing, including a throw to third. The one throw that did get to the bag without bouncing sailed on him, and was hauled in well up and away from the bag.

With Luke Maile – a far better defender – having unexpectedly been made available on waivers in early April, the leash was going to be short on Saltalamacchia.

The leash is far longer on Pearce, whose start has been disappointing, but who has been nowhere near the offensive zero that Saltalamacchia was, with his OPS of .117.

Pearce, brought over as a free agent to add offence, hit just .167/.211/.167 in April with no extra-base hits and only three walks. He has struck out in exactly one-third of his at-bats. Pearce had three hits on opening day in Baltimore and is six-for-49 since.

So why should the leash be longer on Pearce than it was on Saltalamacchia? For starters, Pearce is signed for two years, not one, and the Blue Jays owed him $11 million more than they owe Saltalamacchia.

A larger reason, though, is that Pearce isn’t looking for a bounce-back. He was plenty good in the very recent past, hitting .288/.274/.492 just last year with the Rays and Orioles, though he wasn’t very good after his deadline trade to Baltimore. Pearce has had an OPS better than .780 in three of the last four seasons, including .930 in 2014 with the Orioles.

He’s a veteran of the A.L. East who has very recently been a very good hitter, so there’s not much reason to believe he won’t snap out of this and be a solid contributor again.

The knock against Pearce is that he’s never really produced at a high level as an everyday player, but he’s only played in 16 of the Blue Jays’ first 25 games, less than two-thirds. He might wind up being a guy who gets a lot of run when he’s hitting well and plays less often when he’s slumping, but they’re certainly going to give him a very good chance to get that roll going.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Q – Is it time to send Devon Travis down to Buffalo to work out of his slump?

A – I don’t think so, but I’ll admit to a bias here: I have an intense appreciation for Devon Travis, the hitter. I said before the season that I see a batting title in his future and I still do, though maybe not this year as it’s awfully tough to come back from a month of hitting .137.

Travis was the only Blue Jay to hit .300 last season and was a career .301/.342/.469 hitter going into this year. When he’s on, he uses the whole field, not just gap to gap but line to line, and may be the best “pure” hitter the Blue Jays have.

Travis was a long shot to even make the team out of spring training after coming off knee surgery in the off-season. But he managed to get into some Grapefruit League games over the spring’s final fortnight and although he was kept away from the turf in Montreal for the final pre-season games, he answered the bell on opening day and basically went from working three or four innings every other day in spring to every day work on a regular basis when April hit.

It’s tough to imagine that wasn’t going to catch up with him, and it has. The usually reliable Travis has yet to put together even a three-game hit streak this season.

It looked like Travis was coming out of it in Anaheim when, after an encouraging chat from Albert Pujols, he homered and doubled in consecutive at-bats on April 23 to help turn a 1-0, eighth-inning deficit into a 6-2 win.

But since then Travis has just two hits in 18 at-bats.

I don’t believe the answer is a trip to Buffalo. It’s not as though Travis looks different at the plate. He hasn’t been chasing, he hasn’t gotten pull-happy, he’s not up there flailing away, he’s just in a rather deep trough that he could emerge from at any time. You don’t want him in Buffalo wasting the multi-hit games that are surely on their way.

Also, and perhaps more importantly, the time to send an infielder down for confidence and skills-polishing isn’t when the entire starting left side of the infield is on the disabled list.

Devon Travis a very good major-league hitter hitting very poorly right now. A trip to the minors isn’t going to fix that.

Q – What has happened to Jose Bautista’s power?

A – Well, in April of 2017 at least, there really wasn’t any. Bautista’s extra-base hits, while very meaningful indeed, were few and far between – just three doubles and one home run.

The big fly came in the 13th inning as April 21 turned into April 22 in Anaheim; a three-run shot off Jesse Chavez that gave the Jays the cushion they needed to secure an 8-7 win.

The first double was a bloop down the right field line but the other two were hammered to left-centre, including the one in the eighth inning Sunday afternoon that drove in Darwin Barney with the game’s tying run (and also happened to be Bautista’s 1,000th hit as a Blue Jay).

Meaningful indeed, but not too many. And far more often than usual we’ve seen Bautista display warning track power, which has led people to wonder whether he’s just missing his pitches or whether that’s all he’s got left.

I believe the suggestion that Bautista is no longer a home run threat is just silly. He hit 22 home runs in about two-thirds of a season last year, while spending a lot of time dealing with an injured leg.

Bautista came to spring training knocking the crap out of the ball, and continued to do so for Team Dominican at the World Baseball Classic, including a three-run homer against Canada in their opening game. He left that tournament early due to a lower back issue, and perhaps that needs to be examined as a potential contributor to his rough first month.

Even in his punchless April, Bautista has been hitting the ball harder than the average major-leaguer, with an average exit velocity of 88.8 m.p.h., compared to the major-league average of 87.7. But while he’s still making harder contact than the average big-leaguer, he’s hitting the ball with a lot less authority than he did last year, when the average exit velocity off his bat was 92.6 m.p.h. How much of that is attributable to the back, how much to a simple timing issue and how much to age? I’d say way more the first two than the third.

He hasn’t been big, scary Jose Bautista yet in 2017, and there’s a chance that he may never be that big, scary hitter again. But there’s not much of a chance of that. Bautista’s had his share of bad Aprils before and has always rebounded from them.

It’s astonishing how many people seem to believe – or want to believe – that skills vanish overnight as a player ages, as opposed to diminishing slowly over time. Bautista hasn’t gone from a (pro-rated) 30-homer man to slap hitter who might hit five this year.

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